A few years ago, when self-serve wine tanks were popping up all over France, The Ruby Tap was but a gleam in Brooke Boomer's eye. She was inspired to begin learning about wine after a trip with her husband, Jordan, to the Napa Valley.
One trip led to subsequent jaunts, lots of wine tasting and a yen to do something concrete with what she learned.
With the help of Jordan and her sister Sarah, Boomer envisioned a place where friends and family could mix and mingle, enjoy a glass of wine and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.
"We're casual people. We want people to feel cozy and comfortable," Boomer explains. "As we worked on our business plan, it came down to – we want a place that we'd love to go hang out in."
And so that's exactly what they created.
Just over two weeks ago, the new self-serve wine bar opened quietly at 1341 Wauwatosa Ave., adjacent to Yo Mama!, in Wauwatosa. Decorated with re-purposed barn boards, antique chairs and a corner lounge with a gas fireplace and sofas for lounging, the intimate space combines the friendly feel of a hip local hang-out with the simple comfort of a friend's living room.
And, although the name itself evokes the deeply crimson color of wine, it's actually representative of something greater.
"We kicked around different names like Harmon (the street we grew up on) and things involving cellar or other wine-related things," Boomer says. "We wanted to really make our place as personal as we could."
But, when it all came down, it was family that brought inspiration. Brooke and Sarah's grandmother, Ruby, was an expert in planning occasions for the family to get together. Whether it was Christmas at Hilton Head, or summer nights at their lake house playing games and making s'mores, Grandma Ruby always seemed to be the center of fond family memories.
And these days, she's happy to see her granddaughters making more of their own.
"She's very flattered that we named the place after her and likes to tell people that her granddaughters are working together at a place named after her," says Boomer.
The Ruby Tap offers 70 wines by the bottle, plus 32 varieties available by wine machine, and a handful on tap. Customers can select 1.5-ounce tastes, 3-ounce half pours or 6-ounce full pours of wines from the machines, or 3-ounce, 6-ounce or 18-ounce carafes of wine from the tap. Those who find a wine they enjoy may also purchase a bottle to take with them.
For self-service wines, customers show ID and are either issued a gift card for a dollar amount they select, or a card that functions like an open tab. The card slides into the machine like a credit card, allowing patrons access to the wines of their choice from a computerized vending machine. Staff members are also readily available to assist customers in dispensing wine from the station.
The advantages that both the machines and kegs provide include consistent temperatures and less oxidation, giving open bottles the potential of remaining good for up to 60 days, and kegs for 90. Less waste means higher-end wines at a more reasonable cost – good news for Milwaukee wine lovers.
It also means better flavor.
"I would argue that the wines actually taste fresher out of the tap than out of a bottle," Boomer explains. "It's like drinking beer from the keg."
Boomer recognizes that not every customer will be sold on the "serve yourself" model.
"But, we're not doing this to eliminate staff," Boomer clarifies. "We're doing it because wine can be such a pretentious thing. Because the learning curve can be huge, we want people to learn what they like at their own pace. People can try things – and we're here to answer questions if people have them."
They also wanted the experience to be affordable and accessible. After all, tasting before you buy eliminates disappointment and waste.
"Self-service is great for people who want to try wines, but aren't big drinkers," she continues. "The portion control piece of the machines is great."
For customers seeking something other than wine, the bar offers a selection of Wisconsin beers. In addition, a small menu at each table contains items perfect for pairing with wine – dried fruit, almonds and olives, along with cheeses from Carr Valley and Clock Shadow Creamery, charcuterie from Bolzano and Underground Meats, and a short list of bite-sized desserts from Simma's Bakery. Customers can nibble and match, or ask for recommendations from The Ruby Tap's knowledgeable staff.
Boomer says that they'll be offering wine specials in the coming weeks, and they hope to host a wide variety of wine-based events, including tastings, winemaker visits and classes starting later this year. She also hopes to offer taste-offs where people can choose some of the wines that the bar carries.
"We want people to feel ownership of our place," she says.
Even though The Ruby Tap is brand new, business has been hopping. Boomer isn't complaining, but she can't wait until things equalize and she finds her bearings.
"I'm longing for the day when I can actually take the time to sit down in the green velvet chair in the corner of the lounge and read a book with a glass of wine."
The Ruby Tap provides seating for 38 inside, and 10 on its patio. The bar is open Tuesdays through Thursdays noon to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to midnight and Sundays from noon to 9 p.m.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.